The Great Dictator Review

Chaplin takes the mick out of Hitler in The Great Dictator, released on Blu-ray by Artificial Eye.

During the First World Warm a young soldier (Chaplin) saves the life of an officer, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). Suffering from amnesia due to his injuries, the soldier is hospitalised for twenty years and returns home to the Jewish ghetto and his old profession as a barber in the republic of Tomania,. He meets Hannah (Paulette Goddard) and falls in love with her. But he hasn’t realised that dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again) has come to power and Hynkel is his exact double…

Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler were born four days apart, in April 1889. Both men were of similar height and build, and their resemblance was taken even further when Hitler sported a similar moustache to the false one Chaplin had famously worn in his character as The Tramp. Chaplin started work on The Great Dictator in 1938 in the face of opposition. Those included threats to ban the film in several countries who were at the time pursuing a policy of appeasement towards Germany, the United Kingdom among them. However, all had changed by 1940 when the film was released: Britain was then at war with Germany and happy to see it released for its propaganda value. The Great Dictator was immediately banned in Germany and occupied countries. Hitler did however obtain a print and is on record as having seen the film twice, though his reaction is unrecorded. With hindsight, Chaplin later said that if he had known the full extent of Nazi atrocities, he would have been much more cautious about lampooning Hitler. Watching the film now, the laughter is distinctly uneasy, especially as in many ways the film is astonishingly prescient. At one point Herring (Billy Gale) in Hynkel’s office and exclaims joyfully, “We’ve developed a poison gas! It’ll kill everyone!” The knowledge we have now of the uses that Zyklon B was put to in Nazi concentration camps makes that scene distinctly uncomfortable.

Leaving aside later parodies and pastiches (Silent Movie, The Artist), Chaplin had been the last filmmaker in Hollywood to make a silent film. However, City Lights and Modern Times made use of the new technology by having a Chaplin-composed synchronised music score, sound effects used for comic effect, and in the latter case some spoken dialogue and the Tramp’s nonsense song, although the bulk of the speech was still conveyed by intertitles. However, Chaplin knew he could no longer hold off the sound film and The Great Dictator, entirely self-financed, has fully-synchronised dialogue throughout. While the costume does appear briefly, Chaplin had said goodbye to his Tramp character in his previous film, as a universal figure which would be limited if he had to open his mouth and speak English. His solution was to make one of his two characters (Hynkel) to be highly verbal, even if some of that verbiage is pseudo-German gibberish, but the other (the Jewish barber) to be less so. This enabled him to create several sequences which are basically mimes (with sound effects), such as the opening sequence showing the barber’s service in World War One, and a later sequence where he shaves a customer (Chester Conklin). Many of these scenes were undercranked, at one of the old speeds for silent cinema, sixteen frames per second, as opposed to the sound speed of twenty-four, which all the dialogue scenes had to be shot at. There’s also the scene in Hynkel’s office where the dictator plays with a globe balloon, a sequence which shows off Chaplin’s balletic grace and athleticism and which, as Costa-Gavras points out in the Chaplin Today featurette on this disc, was probably filmed in a single take, though shots are cut into it. As ever, Chaplin’s technical command of the medium is second to, if not none, then very few of the time.

Chaplin had married his co-star Paulette Goddard in 1936, his third and her second of four marriages each. As with Modern Times she is much more of a co-star than any of his previous leading ladies, especially as she was establishing a career of her own away from her husband. Chaplin is clearly besotted with her, granting her many close-ups. However, their marriage and relationship was in decline, and they divorced in 1942. She’s also the last image you see on the screen, as subject of the final, six-minute speech up to then mostly delivered direct to camera. Chaplin was advised against ending a film which was basically a comedy with such a serious and long speech, but he persisted. The speech has remained controversial ever since, as a piece of undiluted author message…which it is. However, if one actor comes close to stealing the whole film, it’s Jack Oakie, both buffoonish and sinister as Napaloni, dictator of neighbouring state Bacteria – read Mussolini, to whom Oakie definitely bears a resemblance. This was the first Chaplin film since 1915 photographed by anyone other than his longstanding DP, Roland (Rollie) Totheroh. Sydney Chaplin had encouraged his brother to bring in a new cameraman, the distinguished Karl Struss, fearing that Totheroh’s technique was behind the times. Both men are credited. Struss suggested that Chaplin use two cameras for some of his scenes shot as single takes, to facilitate editing later. Totheroh, whose reputation is no doubt overshadowed by the fact that he worked almost exclusively with Chaplin, made one more film with him.

Oakie gained one of the film’s five Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actor. Chaplin was nominated for his original screenplay and as Best Actor, and was effectively also nominated for his score, though the nomination went to the credited musical director Meredith Wilson. The Great Dictator was also nominated for Best Picture. It lost all five of its nominations, with that year’s top prize going to a film made by another English expatriate in Hollywood, one with whom Chaplin never worked, Alfred Hitchcock, the film being Rebecca. Chaplin was not happy with losing the awards and took this as a snub. His comedy would take a much blacker turn in his next film, released seven years later, Monsieur Verdoux.

The Disc

The Great Dictator is one of Artificial Eye’s series of Chaplin releases on DVD and, for the first time in the UK, Blu-ray as well. A checkdisc of the latter was supplied for review, and my comments and the affiliate links below refer to the Blu-ray edition. Affiliate links to buy the DVD are here.

As with all of the Chaplin releases, The Great Dictator was first released on DVD by Warner Home Video in 2003, with a transfer and extras then as now licensed from the French company MK2. As before, some extras have been carried over but not all, so completists may wish to hold on to their earlier DVDs. However, The Great Dictator is an exception to the rules established so far. There’s no David Robinson on either disc and there isn’t a Chaplin Today featurette on the DVD but there is on the Blu-ray. The DVD however has a 55-minute documentary made by Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft for the BBC (and shown by them several times since 2002) parallelling the lives of Chaplin and Hitler. This hasn’t been brought forward to the Blu-ray. Also missing in action is “Charlie the Barber”, a deleted scene from the 1919 short Sunnyside, a predecessor of the similar scene in the present film. Also missing is a short scene from Monsieur Verdoux illustrating Chaplin’s interest in history and politics and the outbreak of World War Two, but you can see the whole film on Artificial Eye’s forthcoming Blu-ray and DVD. Also missing on the Blu-ray is a poster gallery. On the other hand, if you insist on listening to The Great Dictator, a film intended to be played in mono, in Dolby Digital 5.1 you will need the DVD, but I won’t be joining you in listening to the film that way. The DVD booklet also has essays by Joel Magny – “Playing with the World: Fiction or Reality?”, “From the Streets of London to Hollywood” and “The Origins of ‘The Great Dictator'” – and a transcript of the final speech in the film.

The Great Dictator was shot, as was every other Hollywood film in 1940, in black and white in Academy Ratio and the Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1. This transfer is quite good: sharp and detailed with natural looking grain and the greyscale seems right, though brightness and contrast have been turned up. Screengrabs follow: 2003 DVD first, this Blu-ray second.

The soundtrack is in the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and it’s clear and well balanced, with the dynamic range you’d expect from a film of this era. There are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available for his English-language feature, but there are, oddly, on one of the extras – see below.

As already mentioned, no David Robinson introduction this time but we do have Chaplin Today – The Great Dictator (26:26). This follows the usual format of previous Chaplin Today featurettes, with a runthrough of the film’s production with input from a guest director. Here this is Costa-Gavras, who speaks in French (translated with an English voiceover). The narrator pronounces Paulette Goddard’s surname as “Godard” as in Jean-Luc.

Carried forward from the DVD is “The Tour Filmed in Colour” (25:45), colour 16mm footage shot by Sydney Chaplin on the set of The Great Dictator, discovered in 1999. This footage is presented entirely mute and shows the filming of the ball scene, a later-deleted and now lost final scene, the fall down the stairs and the World War One sequence. The Great Dictator was shot on black and white film, and sets and costumes were designed with the intention of their appearing as particular shades of grey. However this footage reveals the different colours of the women’s ballgowns: Madame Napolini’s is a deep blue, for example. Some of this footage appears in the Chaplin Today featurette: it is the only evidence that the stormtroopers’ uniform trousers were red.

Also on the disc are two trailers, both from more recent reissues. Neither the feature nor Chaplin Today have hard-of-hearing subtitles available but oddly the first trailer has, and my player switched them on as default. The second trailer has no dialogue, only captions in yellow. Finally, there is the same 10:44 compilation of extracts from the films in the Chaplin Collection which has been on all of Artificial Eye’s Blu-rays so far.


Updated: Sep 12, 2015

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
The Great Dictator Review | The Digital Fix